Laying the foundations for an ethical Metaverse
I feel the responsibility of the occasion. Responsibility is proportionate to opportunity
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, famously said that responsibility corresponds with opportunity. He seemed to have captured the essence of what Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has set out to do — to develop the metaverse, but responsibly.
So, what is the metaverse? Does it inherit social media’s data privacy challenges, and if yes, how do you build a responsible metaverse?
The importance of these questions is now incredibly apparent after CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote at the Facebook Connect 2021.
Let us explore the implications of Facebook’s metaverse and how it could be made more accountable, transparent, and responsible.
Into the Metaverse
Much has been said and written about the Facebook Metaverse since its launch this October. Along with rebranding to Meta, Facebook also announced sizable investments for building the metaverse responsibly.
Zuckerberg’s metaverse is a set of interconnected virtual spaces where people can socialize, work and do more. It is a new interoperable future where avatars attend meetings, friends hang out in cyberpunk apartments, and enjoy concerts across the world from the comfort of their digital rooms.
This vision of a shared digitized space involves a lot of parameters where safety is paramount. When it comes to the metaverse, the need for safety is multi-dimensional – more so because there are no set benchmarks yet as to what can be considered “safe” in a virtual world.
Putting Meta’s Money Where its Mouth is
Just before their October rebranding into Meta, Facebook Inc reported that they would invest $50 million to collaborate with organizations for responsibly building the metaverse.
In a public statement in September, Facebook stated, “The new XR Programs and Research Fund will invest the money globally over two years to ensure metaverse technologies are built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering.”
When Facebook finally launched their metaverse at Connect, they further commented about how serious they were about assuming responsibility for this new opportunity.
Indeed, the metaverse will not be built overnight. Since most of these products and offerings will require years to develop, it will give them the time to ask – and answer – the difficult questions around how developers and creators can maintain accountability.
Practising Responsible Innovation
Meta (previously Facebook) promises to work with experts from different fields to ensure equal opportunities in the metaverse.
Since interoperability is at the core of its business functions, the pragmatic approach is to consult relevant personnel from the government, industry, and academia to ensure success.
Importantly, Facebook isn’t new to data privacy woes. That’s why Meta has laid down a set of ground rules to address concerns from concerned users – specifically, they will focus on:
- Economic opportunity: How to grant people more options, encourage competition and maintain a prospering digital economy.
- Privacy: How to minimize the amount of data usage, design technology that facilitates privacy-sensitive data use, and ensure transparency and control over user data.
- Safety and integrity: How to fortify online welfare for users and equip them with tools to get help or take action if they find something uncomfortable.
- Equity and inclusion: How to can make sure that supporting technologies are designed to be inclusive and accessible.
Aside from this, Meta introduced four responsible innovation principles as the guiding rules for their Reality Labs. Meta-owned Reality Labs houses its augmented and virtual reality efforts.
1. Promoting transparency
Meta plans to maintain transparency about how their products work and the information they collect, and not “surprise people.”
Their first principle revolves around clear and candid communication to help people understand the contracts and make informed decisions about their products and data collection.
2. Providing control
While users are still getting acquainted with the metaverse, it’s imperative to equip them with some autonomy. Meta aims to provide impactful controls so that people can take charge of their virtual experience.
They will add visual indicators and even physical control like camera shutters, age, and comfort ratings in VR. Meta is also encouraging people to establish personal boundaries in virtual worlds.
3. Eliminating discrimination
Meta aspires to provide equal opportunities and “consider everyone.” In a highly digitized world where augmented and virtual reality technology is becoming pervasive, it is crucial to consider everyone who comes into contact with Meta products.
Hence, they plan to build inclusive products that cater to the diverse community and design hardware that is uniquely suited to different needs.
4. People first
The pandemic has transformed most businesses into people-centric models. Meta also intends to keep people at the core of their products and prioritize the community.
They are proposing data sensitivity and impartial collection of personal information to maintain responsibility in the metaverse.
While the above propositions for safety and security sound splendid, Meta needs to make sure users are educated about the metaverse and the products extensively along with guidelines for responsible usage.
If online sentiments are to be believed, people are concerned about whether this new opportunity comes with greater privacy and data invasion. Although Meta has laid down some ground rules, this might not be enough to answer the burgeoning questions people have.
One solution for this is developing literacy programs for the metaverse. Earlier in November, Meta announced its collaboration with the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Through this partnership, they plan to focus on fostering digital literacy amongst the youth while learning about embedding wellness into upcoming metaverse technologies.
Meta has also roped in Everfi as their safety and wellness partner for the metaverse. Together, they will build and implement Get Digital XR, a youth digital literacy program for students aged 13 years and above.
To answer the question: “How do you build a responsible metaverse?” It is by spreading digital literacy, being transparent, and following a people-centric approach. What remains to be seen is whether Meta keeps their word and upholds these principles in the future.